SAN ANTONIO – Thrown into the cauldron of the NBA playoffs as a rookie last season after starting point guard Tony Parker was injured, Dejounte Murray didn’t flinch in the glare of the spotlight.
Even as he made rookie mistakes, Murray also showed flashes of promise and the mental toughness of a player beyond his years.
Murray, who turned 21 last week, had to grow up in a hurry after Parker ruptured his left quadriceps tendon in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets.
“Absolutely,” Murray said Wednesday, when he was asked if being thrown into the proverbial fire accelerated his development.
Murray started Games 3 and 4 against Houston before giving way to Patty Mills, who ran the point for the rest of a postseason run that ended when the Spurs were swept by Golden State in the conference finals.
Murray was so committed to improving his game that he was back at the team’s practice facility only days after being eliminated by the Warriors.
After playing at the University of Washington for only one season, Murray was selected by the Spurs with the 29th pick in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft. He started eight of 38 games during the regular season, averaging 8.5 minutes, 3.5 points, and 1.3 assists.
“Coming in here last year, all the great dudes that you see around, I wasn’t expecting to play,” Murray said. “I was willing to come in and work and learn and just wait for my time. It came sooner than what I thought and what a lot of people thought. I feel that it helped me a lot, but I’ve got a long way to grow.”
Murray stepped up in the playoffs, averaging 15.3 minutes, 5.7 points, 2.5 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 11 games. The only games he started were the two against Houston in the West semifinals.
“I learned that things come at you fast,” Murray said of the playoffs. “It’s another ballgame. It’s not preseason or regular season. Every possession counts. You’re going to make mistakes, but how are you going to bounce back from them?”
Former Spurs coach Larry Brown and ex-players Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter were among the visitors at the team’s training camp Wednesday. Brown, a point guard himself at North Carolina and in the ABA, could be seen talking with Murray after the workout.
“He’s a legend,” Murray said. “He was just telling me what he’s seen so far in my game, and what I can work on and what I do good. Just keep working, try to be as good as I can be.”
Murray said he met Brown, 77, on Monday.
“Every day I’ve been talking to him,” Murray said. “Being around Coach Pop, he’s a legend. But seeing somebody like Coach (Brown) coming in, is even more a thankful thing for me. I like to be around great people and people that know the game, and that are willing to teach me. I’m not afraid to ask questions and learn.”
Brown coached the Spurs for 3½ seasons after getting hired in 1988. He was fired 38 games into the 1992-92 season, when San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and team general manager R.C. Buford were his assistants.
Brown is the only coach in basketball history to win both an NCAA championship (Kansas, 1988) and NBA title (Detroit Pistons, 2004). He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2002. Brown and Popovich have been friends for decades, and faced off in the 2005 NBA Finals, when San Antonio beat Detroit in a grinding, seven-game series.
With Parker not expected to return to action until mid-November – at the earliest – Murray could be the Spurs’ starting point guard when they open their season against Oct. 18 at the AT&T Center.
“I ain’t afraid of the moment,” Murray said, when asked if he’s ready to start. “I’m ready for whatever. Coach runs the minutes. Whatever he needs me to do, whether it’s five minutes or zero minutes, or 20, whatever he needs me to do, I’m willing to help this team and bring my energy.”
Murray enjoys a warm relationship with Parker, who has stayed in his ear even as he continues his rehab work.
“Tony’s been talking to me since day one, since I came in here,” Murray said. “He opened his arms to me to be a mentor, teaching me things, and showing me what hard work is.”
Murray’s work ethic has earned him the respect of the team’s veterans.
“He’s been working out a lot, and he hasn’t basically taken time off,” Manu Ginobili said. “He’s been working hard at the gym, getting his shot off and working on his technique. I’m very optimistic about his future.”
Ginobili called Murray a potential All-Star who could develop into a “great” player.
“You know it’s going to happen now or in five years,” Ginobili said. “It depends a lot on him, but he’s a very talented kid.”
New Spur Rudy Gay has seen enough of Murray already to have a high opinion of him.
“He’s a good, young talent,” Gay said. “He still has a lot to learn, but he’s also really good right now. I don’t even know his ceiling. He’s played well. He’s played great. He comes and gets his work done, and he’s been a professional. When you have talent on top of that, who knows what you can be?”
Saturday scrimmage: The Spurs will have their Silver and Black scrimmage at 11 a.m. Saturday at the AT&T Center. The event is open to the public and admission is free. Seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis.